What were the reasons behind the protest of the summit of the World Trade Organization at Seattle in 1999? What were the consequences of the protest?

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Karyth Cara eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The World Trade Organization (WTO) was inaugurated at the 1995 WTO Conference, and the Seattle WTO Conference was only the third conference held by the organization. The WTO was established as a multilateral (between many countries) global trade organization because the original post-World War II multilateral global trade organization, the 1945 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), perceived its structure was being overwhelmed by globalization of trade, especially in the areas of trade relating to intellectual property and to services along with the "sensitive sectors of agriculture and textiles."

At the final 1994 GATT Ministerial Meeting, held at Marrakesh, Morocco, GATT responded to and finalized the earlier 1982 Uruguay Ministerial Meeting negotiations, called the Uruguay Round [as in round of trade negotiations], that were introduced at Punta del Este, Uruguay. In the 1994 Final Act (called the Marrakesh Agreement) of the GATT Uruguay Round, the GATT Ministerial body, comprised of multilateral member countries, officially established its successor as the World Trade Organization as of 15 April 1994. In other words, the multilateral world trade oversight body, with multinational countries and customs unions membership, that would exist after GATT and as of April 1994 was the World Trade Organization, an expansive globalizing step agreed to by all GATT member countries and customs unions. Now, the WTO regulates and brokers new trade negotiations and agreements while holding the original GATT 1945 agreements as their central authority.

The inaugural 1996 WTO Ministerial Conference--a gathering held every two years for all member countries and customs unions--in Singapore raised four issues between wealthy developed and poor developing countries called the "Singapore issues." These were discussed further at the second 1998 ministerial conference held at Geneva, Switzerland. The third 1999 WTO ministerial conference, which might have discussed and negotiated these four Singapore issues, ended in the disaster at Seattle, Washington

One reason behind the protests was the ill-will the WTO had thus far, since its inauguration at Singapore in 1996, shown toward poor developing countries, like Nigeria, and unfair trade practices engaged in by corporations in wealthy developed countries, like Mobile Oil in the United States, and by unfair monetary practices engaged in by global organizations, like the World Monetary Fund. Abstaining from seriously addressing the Singapore issues, the WTO had overruled national laws that favored environmentally protective global trade practices, like the U.S. restriction on shrimp imports for shrimp caught in nets that do not have escape systems for endangered sea turtles, and national protective labor laws for children, men and women who are subjected to exploitative labor management practices, like sweatshop labor. The WTO found such laws as these examples to be discriminatory against global trade markets, and such laws were set aside by the WTO in what is perceived by protestors as undemocratic violations of national and international law. The Seattle demonstrators were organized for the reason of protesting such WTO actions in addition to its inaction regarding the Singapore issues between the poor and wealthy nations:

  • "transparency in government procurement"
  • "trade facilitation (customs issues)"
  • "trade and investment"
  • "trade and competition"

Two sets of distinct demonstrators gathered in numbers of more than 50,000 on 29 November 1999 in Seattle. The first set was comprised of supporters of consumer rights activist, Ralph Nader; labor union members, with 20,000 rallying at the Space Needle; Nader's environmentalist allies; and supporters of politician and conservative leader Pat Buchanan. Contingents of protestors were present from North America (Canada and the U.S.), Vietnam, Taiwan, Mexico, and Tibet, while simultaneous protests were organized in various cities around the world. This set of demonstrators' reasons for gathering were derived from their commitment to (1) protesting the above issues and to (2) blocking the gathering of WTO Ministerial Conference delegates, delegates who included United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

The second set of demonstrators was intent upon wrecking havoc to protest government and governmental control, which is exactly what they did. This set was comprised of anarchists opposed to all forms of government and control, like the WTO. Their reasons for gathering in Seattle were to create chaos with fires in trash receptacles, to crash store windows encouraging the local criminal element to loot the goods, and for general property vandalism with spray paint, hammers, and M80 firecrackers. Their lawlessness resulted in a series of fires and explosions that burned and rocked the downtown area of Seattle. This lawlessness also contributed to preventing delegates from attending the conference. Delegates stayed in their hotel rooms for at least six hours, giving the first set of committed protestors one small victory from their demonstrations: fearing violence against delegates, the conference had a delayed opening.

The results of the Seattle protests had huge negative results for Seattle, some negative effect on WTO, and a positive effect on observers.

  • Seattle: $3 million in property damage, $10 million loss of retail sales, substantial expense for the heavy police presence, resignation of Seattle Mayor Paul Schell and Police Chief Norm Stamper in the wake of accusations of police brutality and a gross disregard of their civil rights
  • WTO: Only one city bid to provide the location of the 2001 WTO Ministerial Conference, only Qatar, made a formal offer to host the conference. The delegates left Seattle having been victims of a hostage-like experience. The Conference offered no negotiations, thus no agreements, on the issues raised [above], offering only another expression of goodwill toward developing and developed countries alike. The 1999 WTO Conference was ineffectual though fostering destruction.
  • Observers of 1999 WTO, Seattle: Westerners, especially Americans, who had been complacent or ignorant about the WTO issues, actions and/or principles were suddenly well informed resulting in greater interest in the WTO policy actions although negative news coverage also damaged the image of demonstrators, who were, as shown, a mixed collection of diverse sets with different interests and approaches.
mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Whenever the World Trade Summits meet, they are met with protest; however, the 1999 Summit in Seattle was fraught with protestation planned well in advance. Organized groups included international, national, and local groups: non-governmental organizations, labor organizations, environmental organizations, anti-global organizations, student groups, religiously-based organizations, and anarchists. 

Here are some of the reasons for the protests by these groups:

  • Activists were convinced that developing countries of the third-world would be adversely affected by agreement reached in the Summit.
  • Environmentalists were worried that protections of the environment would be ignored by profit-seeking corporations and by certain countries
  • Labor unions did not want jobs in the U.S. going overseas.
  • Labor unions and activists both were concerned that "transnational corporate influencers" would gain excessive power over manufacturing and trade."

After the dissemination of misinformation reported in newspapers by activists who staged a spoof of the Seattle newspaper, activists formed on the deserted streets near the convention center while others came from the opposite direction, in effect cutting police power in two. After others joined them in what became "a street-carnival atmosphere," the convention was called off. It took police much of the afternoon and evening to clear the streets. Paul Schell, the Seattle mayor, declared a state of emergency,imposing a curfew and a 50-block "No-Protest Zone."

Because the New York Times printed an erroneous article that Molotov cocktails were thrown by the protesters at the Seattle police, the mainstream media picked up the story and the news of the protests spread throughout the U.S. A subsequent article in the U.S. magazine, The Nation, comments upon the effect of this mis-reporting of violence:

Though these numbers alone are telling, the media coverage of subsequent demonstrations that did not include violence by protesters shows even more the effect of violence on coverage. For example, the World Bank/International Monetary Fund (WB/IMF) meetings in the spring showed a “coverage pattern that was almost the reverse of that in Seattle” and that “suggests the crucial role of violence in garnering time on the public screen."

As a consequence of the Seattle convention of the WTO, greater attention by American citizenry was given to the protests of the activists. There were several negative effects to the city of Seattle as the chief of police was forced to resign, the mayor lost re-election, and the city was found in violation of Fourth Amendment Rights of numerous citizens who had been arrested without probable cause or evidence, a violation that cost the city $250,000.00 in restitution.